T’ai Chi Chuan; fighting system or healing art?

Mike Tabtrett

Mt 3 One of the long running debates in T’ai Chi Chuan circles is over its’ function as either martial or healing art. Whilst undoubtedly a martial art historically it is probably true to say that the majority of people (especially in the West) see it as a healing and therapeutic practise. This has led some players to suggest distinguishing between the two – perhaps by having ‘T’ai Chi’ on the one hand and ‘T’ai Chi Chuan’ on the other. Whilst this might be convenient in promoting our classes – ensuring that people attending are there appropriately – my own experience suggests that it would be to the long term detriment of the art in all of its aspects. As a professional teacher I work, as do many others, increasingly in health related fields; yet at the same time I look to develop my own practise in the martial arts through both T’ai Chi and other styles. Increasingly I find that there is no clear boundary between them; on the contrary progress in the one enhances and deepens my development in the other. Moreover, exploring the connection between these two apparently opposing aspects, and the results of bringing about a balance between them seem to point me at one of the deep truths of T’ai Chi.

Mt 2 Howard Reid, in his book ‘The Way of the Warrior’ referred to what he considered to be the ‘paradox of the martial arts’ – the growing awareness that as he visited martial masters in various places he was also encountering healing masters in the same person. He suggests, in a response that is typically pragmatic in such arts, that this came about because of the need to be able to repair damage done in training and fighting. This connection is not restricted to other nations; I have met many practising martial artists who have delved in to various healing arts – and not always in the interests of repairing their own or others damage. Reid also comments that it was an accessible way for a martial artist to make a living, implying that there is an inherent compatibility between the two sides and that there are some transferable skills.

Mt 1 My own experience certainly confirms this compatibility; I frequently find that awareness and physical skills gained in practising martial arts give me insights that improve my ability to teach those with specialist health needs, including those who are frail and elderly and who may be obliged to spend most of a class practising from a chair. It is not that I try to teach them to practise as a martial art, but rather that aspects of T’ai Chi that are trained, tested and developed in a martial context are often the most useful tools to get across to people with health needs. For instance, the value of T’ai Chi in helping people with balance problems is undoubtedly directly related to the amount of time we spend trying to push each other over and learning not to fall. I believe it is this martial aspect of T’ai Chi that makes it unique as a healing art.

I feel however that there is more than a simple transfer of skills and awareness going on. As a fighting art T’ai Chi has to have a degree of flexibility built in to its’ mindset. Anybody who has trained in a martial art will understand this; whatever methods of training you use there will always be an unknown element involved in fighting applications. No two people will respond in exactly the same way so at some point it is necessary to break out of the box of traditional movements and applications in a way that is perhaps best defined as ‘intuitional’. That is; an application of principle according to the situation in that moment.

This focus on the moment without being blinkered and tunnel visioned invokes a third aspect of the art – that of meditation or development of the Mind as it requires us to act from somewhere other than our intellect or a simple knowledge base. We are told by some of the classic writings of our tradition that the idea of ‘Mind’ is paramount. It is arguable that the growth and shaping of a calm awareness, especially as it is done under potentially stressful and frightening conditions in the martial, is the major health benefit of the art. From this point of view it is hardly surprising that T’ai Chi can help with situations and conditions that develop under stress and pressure (and that is most of them) and that it is an art which can adapt itself to many different circumstances and situations – not always pleasant ones. We are trained to remain alert, sensitive and centred regardless of the exterior environment and this gives us a strength and ability unique in the healing arts. We are enabled to recognise and respond to people and conditions that are beyond our normal experience by the skills and strength cultivated in the practise of the marital art.

This aspect – the development of Mind or awareness – may be the crucial link between the healing and martial aspects of the art. Of course almost anything can develop awareness but some tried and tested methods are without doubt more useful; in many traditions where there is an emphasis on this sort of development both martial and healing arts are found amongst the methods employed. I feel that the awareness working developed in martial applications and push hands has been crucial in cultivating the healing aspect of T’ai Chi both for myself and in what I have to offer to others; to the degree that I do not think I would be able to work with the people that I do without it. I am equally sure that working with the healing aspect, where I am also required to think ‘out of the box’, has contributed to the martial side in exactly the same way by encouraging me to question the essence of my own practise in a very positive way.

Being put in circumstances beyond your experience is one way in which we develop. Looking to understand how basic principles can be developed in different circumstances increases our ability to use them in all contexts. Understanding how these principles work in a chair or adapting them to the horizontal environment of grappling are two examples. Both can feed our ‘mainstream’ practise.


Mind (or intent) we are told can direct the Chi; and the body will follow the Chi. You do not have to accept the existence of a metaphysical energy to appreciate awareness can affect our physical state and vice versa; in pushing hands for instance I am most likely to be pushed when my mind has wandered off ; ‘Chi’ could just as easily refer to subtle aspects of posture and breathing. Anything that trains this intent is worthy of notice. ‘Balance’ or ‘Equilibrium’ are also essential terms in the T’ai Chi lexicon; and it is demonstrably important to reflect these in our own practise. We have all met people who might sway either to being too hard and begin to damage their bodies or to soft and loose essential clarity and strength. Acknowledging the importance and relevance of this balanced in our approach can highlight the connections between the apparently opposing aspects of the art in a very practical and physical way.

I wonder whether the use of T’ai Chi in healing contexts has not fed in to the development of awareness in the tradition historically Though I would have trouble proving this . Certainly I do not believe that those of us who are teaching and involved in both aspects are not unique in history and so there must have been many teachers – and masters – who have owed at least some of their own personal development to the healing side. I am not sure how we would quantify this, or even if we would need to; perhaps it is enough that elements of the healing and martial sides have been present in the practise of T’ai Chi for a significant proportion of its’ history

Of course we all choose our priorities in our practise and I am not trying to say that everybody should engage with all aspects of T’ai Chi to exactly the same degree; this would be detrimental to the art as a whole as there are clearly people who excel in one aspect or another because they have focussed so much of their energy in a particular direction. However for the art as a whole to continue to grow there must surely be a broad as well as a deep aspect to allow our collective understanding of Mind and Intent to develop. Unfortunately there seem to be an increasing number of people trying to say that the art is either one thing or another. I see no need to divide them as the practise teaching of one does not denigrate the other if it is done with an acceptance of the importance of the other. Perhaps it is only when the proponents of one side or the other lay claim to some sort of ultimate truth that the art, in all of its’ aspects, will begin to suffer.